Behind the Headline: The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration

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The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration
The Atlantic | October 2015

Behind the Headline
Moynihan and the Single-Parent Family
Education Next | Spring 2015

On the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report,  Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic  looks back at what Moynihan wrote in the original report, how Moynihan’s views later changed, and about the experiences of African Americans in the U.S. in the decades since the report was issued, with a focus on the phenomenon of mass incarceration.

Coates explains that in his famous report, Moynihan wrote that the black family “battered and harassed by discrimination, injustice, and uprooting, is in the deepest trouble.” Moynihan wrote the report with the aim of building support for “an all-out government assault on the structural social problems that held black families down,” Coates says. However, Coates argues that Moynihan later came to join “the long tradition of black criminalization” that saw the need to increase the incarceration of blacks.

Coates argues that as we contemplate the phenomenon of mass incarceration today, we need to return to what Moynihan wrote in the original report and consider how to compensate those who have suffered from so many years of unequal treatment. He writes

“Now comes the proposition that the Negro is entitled to damages as to unequal favored treatment—in order to compensate for past unequal treatment of an opposite kind,” Moynihan wrote in 1964. His point was simple if impolitic: Blacks were suffering from the effects of centuries of ill treatment at the hands of white society. Ending that ill treatment would not be enough; the country would have to make amends for it. “It may be that without unequal treatment in the immediate future there is no way for [African Americans] to achieve anything like equal status in the long run,” Moynihan wrote.


For another take on the Moynihan Report on its 50th anniversary, please read “Moynihan and the Single-Parent Family: The 1965 report and its backlash,” by James T. Patterson, professor of history emeritus at Brown University and author of Freedom Is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America’s Struggle over Black Family Life from LBJ to Obama (Basic Books, 2010).

Patterson’s article appears in the Spring 2015 issue of Education Next, which focused on  the state of the American family on the 50th anniversary of the  Moynihan Report.

– Education Next

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